In the NZ Herald last week, there was an article about John Key’s position on euthanasia. Key had been quizzed by Bob McCoskrie from Family First about a range of issues, one of which was euthanasia. John Key’s position was reported as follows:
Prime Minister John Key has signalled possible loosening of euthanasia laws, saying he would sympathise with “speeding up of the process” of death for a terminally ill patient.
He told Family First director Bob McCoskrie in a public interview at a forum in Auckland yesterday that euthanasia would be “a legitimate thing” to speed up death for a terminally ill patient who was in pain.
Now Labour MP Maryan Street had a private member’s bill in the ballot last year, the End of Life Choice Bill, aimed at legalising voluntary euthanasia. It was withdrawn so that it wouldn’t be an election year distraction, should it be drawn from the ballot. At the time of its withdrawal, David Cunliffe refused to reveal his personal stance on legalising euthanasia. He stated:
“I have a personal view, but given my current responsibilities I’m going to reserve that until my caucus has an opportunity to discuss it.”
That was back in mid-October 2013. Evidently, Labour’s caucus still hasn’t had an opportunity to discuss the issue, for when the Herald asked Cunliffe for his view last week he “declined to comment on the issue yesterday and Ms Street did not return calls”.
It struck me as symptomatic of Cunliffe’s leadership problems – that he doesn’t seem to want to commit to a position until he’s had some polling done on the issue; that you never really know what David Cunliffe actually thinks or believes.
Euthanasia is just one example. Last month there was the question of whether Cunliffe would send troops to Iraq, if the US were to return there. On Newstalk ZB, on 13 June, Cunliffe’s position was less than firm – it would depend on the circumstances; we won’t hypothesise without specific facts; it would rely on the position taken by the UN and our partners; nothing can be ruled in or out. By 16 June, the weekend having passed, Cunliffe had a fresh position:
“The Labour government I lead would not contribute combat troops to Iraq under any foreseeable circumstances.”
As Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn wrote at the time, “You shouldn’t need a focus group to find your spine”.
During the Clark years, I’d always thought that Cunliffe was on the right of the Labour Party. But then suddenly, when it suited him, there he was on the left, talking tax hikes and Socialist Red. To me it didn’t ring true. It seemed like an act, although it certainly won over the Labour membership and the unions. At the time, all three leadership candidates – Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones – all appeared to have learned from the Republican and Democrat primary races in the US, where prospective presidential candidates have made an art form out of lurching to the edges of the bell curve to gain the support of the party activists, before tacking back to the centre to appeal to the independents.
Now, true to form, Cunliffe is indeed working his way back to the centre. There’s nothing Socialist Red about the Labour Party’s recent policy announcements. They’re designed to appeal to the centre, to say to swing voters, “Don’t worry, you can safely vote National out without fear of sudden change. We’ll keep the ship steady, but we’ll just do it better than National.”
But that’s where Cunliffe’s problems lie. If there’s no major policy differentiation that strikes a chord with voters, it becomes an issue of which political face voters prefer. If the ship sails on regardless, do voters want Key or Cunliffe at the helm? And if no one knows what Cunliffe actually believes, if they feel that he’s little more than a political chameleon in a suit, then they’ll stick with the guy that they know – John Key.
Perhaps the last word should be given to John Tamihere, from Claire Trevett’s ongoing biography of Cunliffe in the Herald:
“He’s an extraordinarily talented chap but you never get to see the real David. You get to see the David that he thinks you want to see. And that’s his problem.”